W.B. Yeats and “The White Birds”

Here we have a wonderfully evocative lyric by the Irish poet W.B. Yeats:

The White Birds

I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the foam of the sea!
We tire of the flame of the meteor, before it can fade and flee;
And the flame of the blue star of twilight, hung low on the rim of the sky,
Has awaked in our hearts, my beloved, a sadness that may not die.
A weariness comes from those dreamers, dew-dabbled, the lily and rose;
Ah, dream not of them, my beloved, the flame of the meteor that goes,
Or the flame of the blue star that lingers hung low in the fall of the dew:
For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!
I am haunted by numberless islands, and many a Danaan shore,
Where Time would surely forget us, and Sorrow come near us no more;
Soon far from the rose and the lily and fret of the flames would we be,
Were we only white birds, my beloved, buoyed out on the foam of the sea!

Yeats wrote this poem for his beloved Maud Gonne after they had enjoyed a daytrip to the beach together.  He was so incredibly in love with her that he idealized her as a symbol in many of his poems.  For Yeats, his was an unrequited love.  And so the object of his passion was as removed as the symbols he created, as distant as his thoughts of her could approach realization in actual life.  The meaning of his poems require readers to uncode hidden symbols and esoteric information.  He imagines her as a figure of Homeric epic–a Helen of Troy–as seabirds that mate for life, as swans do.  In that way, the couple could be secure in each other’s company and personal address for eternity, through life and in the afterlife of time’s passage.

“The flame of the meteor” are the transitory events of present human history, socio-political events in the world, and at home for them in Ireland.  These events shall pass as the tail of a meteor trails in the evening sky, as the orb passes over the phases of time and space.  These phases are a backdrop for the twilight of a new history in Ireland, a new republic, borne on the cosmic imaginations of artists and genuine poets, not martial revolutionaries, but those who energize their work with images and symbols from the Spiritus Mundi.  The leaders of political revolution are mere dreamers, mere ideologues, not poet-dreamers who can build a nation with heart and soul.  He recommends wariness of “the lily and rose,” symbols of Ireland’s political past and future, leaving behind the mire of politics in favor of a transformative metaphysics of imagined love, passions, and the sacred mystical union of a poet with his beloved mate.


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